It was only the middle of November, but overnight the city had strung up Christmas lights. In a few weeks, they’d be turned on. Meanwhile, the weather was wet and miserable. One of my adult students in a group of three beginners, a woman about my age, came into class, holding out a piece of paper with a sentence on it. I was standing at the white board, erasing what I’d written for the previous class, and while the other two settled into their seats, I put on my reading glasses and took the paper from her. It was a sentence in English from a sitcom, and my student asked the meaning of one of the words, spell. Before I could tell her, she told me, hechizo.
For a moment I was confused. Well, it dawned on me, naturally she knew: she’d have watched the show with subtitles, and she’d have had the translation there on the screen. So why was she asking me?
“Yes,” I agreed, and looked inquiringly at her.
“How?” she asked. “How can you tell if it means enchantment or means to give the letters of a word?”
“Oh,” I said. It was such an easy question. Had I been addressing an upper level student, I might have pointed out that one was a verb, the other a noun, and the grammar of the sentence would tell you which. Textbooks often suggest determining the part of speech required by a sentence as the best strategy for choosing a missing word in fill-in-the-blank exercises on tests. But I’m not so sure that such a roundabout way is the best. It’s like telling someone who asks how to get to the door to lift a foot, shift hips to shift weight, put the foot down, and do the same with the other side. Isn’t “walk” a much easier answer? Or “think” for someone trying to solve a puzzle? If you can do it, that’s all the instruction you need, and if you can’t, no amount will help. The helpful answer is essentially a reminder, and I had that reminder for her. Although the student was asking in Spanish, I could tell her in English because the word is nearly the same in the two languages. “Context,” I said.
She laughed. “That’s it?”
“English,” she said, “what a language.”
The other woman in the class, in her 30s or early 40s, pointed out it was the same way in Spanish, context telling you which of two meanings is meant. The first student tensed. “When?” She’d shrugged off her coat and taken her place beside the other student, and now she sat like a drawn bow, waiting to shoot down an answer.
While I was searching for an example, the other student provided it. “Ola,” she said, moving her hand to imitate an ocean wave, “and Hola, buenos días.”
Not spelled the same, pointed out the first; but that doesn’t matter when you’re speaking, pointed out the second. And then, immediately, this second student threw out another word, banco. It’s what you sit on in a park, or a bank with money, or the edge of a river. Very good, I thought.
She might have kept going. But no one needed further examples, not the first two students and not the third student, the oldest, about 70 and somewhat deaf, who had waited patiently through the whole exchange, and whom we’d momentarily forgotten. When I glanced at him, he was sitting quietly, looking at his folded hands. Then he looked up and gave an apologetic shrug.
I didn’t need further examples either—not to appreciate the exasperation of the one student, to admire the gentle response of the other, to lament the slide into irrelevance of the third, and to see myself, past, present, and future, in the three students. Meanwhile, the Christmas decorations are on, and the streets are twinkling with light and hope.
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